Samsung chairman dies at age 78

Lee Kun-hee, the long-time chairman of Samsung Group who transformed the conglomerate into one of the world’s largest business empires, died today at the age of 78, according to reports from South Korean leading news agency Yonhap.

The story of Samsung is deeply intertwined with the history of its home country, which is sometimes dubbed “The Republic of Samsung.” Lee, the son of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, came to power in the late 1980s just as South Korea transitioned from dictatorship to democracy with the political handover from military strongman Chun Doo-hwan to Roh Tae-woo. Under his management, Samsung spearheaded initiatives across a number of areas in electronics, including semiconductors, memory chips, displays, and other components that are the backbone of today’s digital devices.

Lee navigated the challenging economic troubles of the 1990s, including the 1998 Asian financial crisis, which saw a near collapse of the economies of South Korea and several other so-called Asian Tigers, as well as the Dot-Com bubble, which saw the collapse of internet stocks globally.

Coming out of those challenging years, Lee invested in and is probably most famous today for building up the conglomerate’s Galaxy consumer smartphone line, which evolved Samsung from an industrial powerhouse to a worldwide consumer brand. Samsung Electronics, which is just one of a spider web of Samsung companies, is today worth approximately $350 billion, making it among the most valuable companies in the world.

While his business acumen and strategic insights handling Samsung were lauded, he faced troubles in recent years. He was convicted of tax evasion in the late 2000s, but was ultimately pardoned by the country’s then president Lee Myung-bak (no relation).

Samsung has also been under fire from groups including Elliott Management over chairman Lee’s attempts to secure the financial future of Samsung for his son, Lee Jae-yong, who took over effective leadership of the conglomerate following the elder Lee’s heart attack in 2014. Lee Jae-yong has suffered his own run-ins with the law, having been found guilty of bribery and sentenced to five years in prison, which was ultimately suspended by a judge.

After his heart attack, Lee Kun-hee remained hospitalized in stable condition according to Yonhap. Rumors of his condition have percolated in the six years since.

According to Bloomberg, Lee leaves behind roughly $20 billion in wealth, and he is the wealthiest South Korean citizen. He is survived by his wife as well as four children.

Smartphone shipments rebound to an all-time high in India

Smartphone shipments reached an all-time high in India in the quarter that ended in September this year as the world’s second largest handset market remained fully open during the period after initial lockdowns due to the coronavirus, according to a new report.

About 50 million smartphones shipped in India in Q3 2020, a new quarterly record for the country where about 17.3 million smartphone units shipped in Q2 (during two-thirds of the period much of the country was under lockdown) and 33.5 million units shipped in Q1 this year, research firm Canalys said on Thursday.

Xiaomi, which assumed the No.1 smartphone spot in India in late 2018, continues to maintain its dominance in the country. It commanded 26.1% of the smartphone market in India, exceeding Samsung’s 20.4%, Vivo’s 17.6%, and Realme’s 17.4%, the marketing research firm said.

Image Credits: Canalys /

But the market, which was severely disrupted by the coronavirus, is set to see some more shifts. Research firm Counterpoint said last week that Samsung had regained the top spot in India in the quarter that ended in September. (Counterpoint plans to share the full report later this month.)

According to Counterpoint, Samsung has benefited from its recent aggressive push into online sales and from the rising anti-China sentiments in India.

The geo-political tension between India and China has incentivised many consumers in India to opt for local brands or those with headquarters based in U.S. and South Korea. And local smartphone firms, which lost the market to Chinese giants (that command more than 80% of the market today) five years ago, are planning a come back.

Indian brand Micromax, which once ruled the market, said this month that it is gearing up to launch a new smartphone sub-brand called “In.” Rahul Sharma, the head of Micromax, said the company is investing $67.9 million in the new smartphone brand.

In a video he posted on Twitter last week, Sharma said Chinese smartphone makers killed the local smartphone brands but it was now time to fight back. “Our endeavour is to bring India on the global smartphone map again with ‘in’ mobiles,” he said in a statement.

India also recently approved applications from 16 smartphone and other electronics companies for a $6.65 billion incentives program under New Delhi’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. Foxconn (and two other Apple contract partners), Samsung, Micromax, and Lava (also an Indian brand) are among the companies that will be permitted to avail the incentives.

Missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers such as Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme.

Hearings begin in Samsung vice chairman Jay Y. Lee’s accounting fraud trial

The trial of Samsung leader Jay Y. Lee, who is accused of accounting fraud and stock price manipulating, held its first hearing today at the Seoul Central District Court.

The Seoul Central District Court denied prosecutors’ arrest warrant request for Lee in June, stating that even though they had secured a “considerable amount of evidence,” it was still not enough to detain Lee.

Lee was not present for the hearing. Vietnamese state media reported that he was in Vietnam earlier this week to discuss investments with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Prosecutors allege that the value of electronics materials provider Cheil Industries was artificially inflated before its merger with Samsung’s holding company five years ago to create a more favorable rate for Lee, who was then Cheil’s largest shareholder.

Lee is also one of eleven current and former Samsung Executives indicted by South Korean prosecutors last month over charges that they inflated the assets of Samsung BioLogics, which Cheil held a major stake in.

During the hearing today, Lee’s attorney said that the merger and accounting process were part of normal management activities, reported Channel News Asia.

If found guilty, Lee may face a jail sentence. Lee has already spent time in jail, after he was charged with bribing former President Park Geun-hye to secure support for the merger. Lee was released from prison in 2018 after serving almost a year.

Park was impeached in 2017 and sentenced to a 25-year prison term for bribery, abuse of power and embezzlement.

India approves Apple partners and Samsung for $143 billion smartphone manufacturing plan

Samsung and three major contract manufacturing partners of Apple are among 16 firms to win $6.65 billion incentives under India’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. These companies had applied for the incentive program in August.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said these companies will be producing smartphones and other electronics components worth more than $143 billion over the next five years. In return, India will offer them an incentive of 4% to 6% on additional sales of goods produced locally over five years, with 2019-2020 set as the base year.

New Delhi’s move is aimed at significantly improving India’s manufacturing and exporting capacities and generating more local jobs. Around 60% of the locally produced products will be exported, the Indian ministry said. The companies will generate more than 200,000 direct employment opportunities in next five years and as many as 600,000 indirect employment opportunities during the same period, the ministry said.

The move is also a precursor to how the dynamics among major smartphone makers might change in India, the world’s second largest market, over the next few years. The inclusion of Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron underscores how rapidly Apple plans to expand its local manufacturing capabilities in India. Wistron began assembling a handful of iPhone models in India three years ago, followed by Foxconn. Pegatron has yet to start production in India.

“Apple and Samsung together account for nearly 60% of global sales revenue of mobile phones and this scheme is expected to increase their manufacturing base manifold in the country,” the ministry said.

“Industry has reposed its faith in India’s stellar progress as a world class manufacturing destination and this resonates strongly with Prime Minister’s clarion call of AtmaNirbhar Bharat – a self-reliant India,” the ministry added.

Indian firms Lava, Bhagwati (Micromax), Padget Electronics, UTL Neolyncs and Optiemus Electronics have also received the approval. But missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme that had not applied for the program. Chinese smartphone vendors currently command about 80% of the Indian market. Samsung, which once led the Indian smartphone market, has faced intense competition from Xiaomi and Vivo in recent years.

Google wakes up from its VR daydream

Daydream, Google’s mobile-focused virtual reality platform is losing official support from Google, Android Police reports. The company confirmed that it will no longer be updating the Daydream software, with the publication noting that “Daydream may not even work on Android 11” as a result of this.

This isn’t surprising to anyone who has been tracking the company’s moves in the space. After aggressive product rollouts in 2016 and 2017, Google quickly abandoned its VR efforts which, much like the Samsung Gear VR, allowed users to drop a compatible phone into a headset holster and use the phone’s display and compute to power VR experiences. After Apple’s announcement of ARKit, the company did a hard pivot away from VR, turning its specialty AR platform Tango into ARCore, an AR developer platform that has also not seen very much attention from Google in recent months.

Google bowing out of official support from Daydream comes after years without product updates to their own View headset and very little investment in their content ecosystem which wrecked the chances of Lenovo’s third-party effort the standalone Mirage Solo.

What went wrong? Once it became clear that Daydream wasn’t going to be an easy win, they kind of just abandoned the effort. Google’s hardware business is already peanuts to their search and ads business so it probably wasn’t clear what the point was, but virtual reality also quickly went from being the “it” technology to work on to clearly being a labor of love for a select few. Google determined it wasn’t the effort while Facebook continued to double down. It’s hard to fault them for it, in 2020, even with some very good hardware on the way from Oculus, it still isn’t clear what VR’s future looks like.

It is clear, however, that Daydream won’t be part of it.

Apple partner Servify raises $23 million to scale its devices after-sales and management platform overseas

Servify, a Mumbai-headquartered startup that operates a device lifecycle management platform and works deeply with brands including Apple and Samsung in a number of geographies, has raised $23 million in a new financing round.

The Series C financing round for the five-year-old startup was led by existing investor Iron Pillar, and other existing investors including Blume Ventures, Beenext, and Tetrao SPF participated in the round. The new round pushes Servify’s to-date raise to $48 million.

Servify works with enterprises such as Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Nokia, Motorola, and Airtel and handles after-sales services such as device protection, exchange, and trade-in programs for its partners, explained Sreevathsa Prabhakar, founder and chief executive of the startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The startup, which offers its services through a whitelabel arrangement with enterprises, works with over 50 brands and reaches over 50 markets. With Apple, it works in three geographies, and in over half a dozen with OnePlus .

The new round, which was oversubscribed, will help the startup expand its expertise in many new product categories and deepen its reach in international markets, said Prabhakar, who has more than a decade of experience in overseeing after-sales and other device management businesses.

“We are keenly interested in unique businesses addressing hard problems in very large and global markets and are excited to continue to back the company in its next phase of growth. Stellar execution by Servify’s team combined with its differentiated technology platform have led to the company’s impressive growth this year despite Covid-19 related challenges,” said Anand Prasanna, Managing Partner at Iron Pillar, in a statement.

The coronavirus outbreak has deeply impacted the business of Servify, which was profitable in the financial year that ended in March. The month of April and May, when many countries enforced lockdowns, the startup’s business reached a complete halt. But in the months since, it has not only fully-recovered but grown to new heights, said Prabhakar.

TechCrunch asked Prabhakar if he would ever consider engaging with customers directly. He said the current model of Servify enables it to acquire customers at no charge and he thinks it’s the right model to maintain moving forward.

More to follow…

Samsung is holding yet another Unpacked Event on September 23

One thing I’ll say for in-person events: they compelled companies to cram in a lot of news. After all, if you’re going to ask an auditorium full of people to travel from around the country — or world — you want to give them a lot of bang for their buck.

Samsung did manage that with its Galaxy Note event in early August. We got a new phone, new earbuds, new watch, new tablet and a preview of an upcoming foldable. A couple of weeks ago, the company devoted an entire second event to the new Fold. And now here we are, a couple of weeks later, staring down yet another event.

The September 23 event will likely focus on the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition that’s been floating around in leaks for a few months now, the way Samsung devices tend to. I’m not saying there won’t be a bunch of other news at the event as well, but the Fold event lowered my expectations a bit with regard to what the company deems worthy of a standalone event in 2020, versus, say, issuing a press release or something.

Anyway, the so-called “Fan Edition” finds the company picking up a long-abandoned trend of issuing lower-cost alternatives to flagship devices (notably, a refurbished version of the Note 7).

Here it seems to be a lower-priced take on Samsung’s primary flagship, the Galaxy S20. From the sound of it, the device is essentially a rebranding of its “Lite” line — the latest take on an already confusing approach to its budget flagship offerings.

We’ll find out more September 23 at 7 a.m. PT/10 a.m. ET.

Samsung’s got a new budget 5G handset and a fitness tracker with a two-week battery

Yesterday’s overflow Galaxy Unpacked event was about one thing and one thing alone: the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Honestly, it was a bit anticlimactic after its predecessor found Samsung unveiling five new devices. But the singular focus wasn’t for lack of new stuff to show off. In fact, the company just unleashed a whole slew of new products across a wide range of categories, including a gaming monitor, charging pad, refrigerator and washing machine.

There are two in particular I’d like to break out here, however: the new Galaxy Fit 2 band and A42 5G handset. The latter in particular is worth highlighting, given the company’s huge push into 5G this year. Samsung is betting big on pushing early and hard on the next-generation wireless tech.

Early this year, the company announced that it would be standardizing 5G across its flagship products. The company has also made a major push toward embracing the tech on its budget devices, including the A7 and now the A42. 5G hasn’t quite turned out to be the market correction the industry was banking on, due in no small part to a slowdown in sales from the pandemic. Certainly few banked on that. But while Apple has yet to announce a 5G iPhone (give it a month or two, mind), Samsung’s already loaded up.

And importantly, the A42 looks like it may be Samsung’s cheapest 5G offering (though we’re still waiting on exact pricing). Honestly, Samsung wasn’t particularly chatty about the device during an IFA-tied event. Though we do know there’s a quad-camera system and a 6.6-inch display. Honestly, one of the most remarkable things about 5G is how quickly affordable devices have hit the market, thanks in part to the efforts of component makers like Qualcomm.

Image Credits: Samsung

The Galaxy Fit 2 is notable mostly for the inclusion of a 15-day battery (per Samsung). It can autodetect five different kinds of workouts and monitors sleep. It’s nice to see Samsung still offering something up to the dwindling tracker market, even as its (and the world’s) focus has clearly shifted over to smartwatches.

IFA’s executive director discusses why the tech show must go on

In June, the CTA announced that CES 2021 would go forward in-person. The event was set to have slipped under the wire — having narrowly avoided a COVID-19-related shutdown two years in a row. A month later, however, its organizers reversed course, announcing the January show was going virtual. Disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising.

The past five months have seen one in-person show cancellation after another, from MWC to E3, from WWDC to Computex to our own Disrupt, which is going online-only for the first time. One major consumer electronics trade show, on the other hand, has long planned to buck that trend. On September 3, IFA will kick off in-person in Berlin. Though this year’s event will look dramatically different.

“Usually, we have more than 40 halls serving IFA . This year, at the moment, we have two halls for the press conference with the stages, one exhibition hall, one press center hall and one hall for IFA Next and Shift Mobility,” the organization’s executive director Jens Heithecker explains on the phone from Germany. “We will have around 170-180 exhibitors, compared to 2,300 last year.”

Heithecker doesn’t mask the melancholy in his voice when discussing this year’s version of the show. “To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” he says. “This year for me, the air’s the same, but whenever I see the halls, the area of our exhibition site, it’s empty, more or less.”

I’ve attended IFA several times over the years, and have always been struck by the organizational chaos. Every tech trade show has some element of this, of course, but IFA opens itself up the public, filling the maze like halls of the Messe Berlin convention center with a peculiar mix of industry professionals and local families with small children. It’s alternately amusing and maddening, depending on how much time you give yourself to get from point A to point B.

This year’s show has been designated IFA 2020 Special Edition. It’s essentially a nice way of noting that the show will be significantly smaller than in years past. Heithecker notes that some 1,100 members of the press have registered for the show, all from a limited invite list. I was on the invite list as well, but, like many, simply opted not to go. Frankly, the idea of flying to German to stand inside an event hall with exhibitors and fellow journalists sounds far less appealing than following along from home.

I’m sure my own sense of safety is colored by my home country’s less-than-ideal handling of the pandemic. But with 24.5 million global cases and 833,000 deaths to date from the virus, there’s still cause for concern, as numbers continue to rise around the globe. Germany has, of course, largely done well in its own handling of the novel coronavirus, but there’s cause for concern even there. With numbers rising, the country has put reopening plans on pause while other European countries like Norway have added German travelers to a quarantine list.

“By end of March, we started to create our statistics on our own, to understand the situation a better way than in the public media only,” says Heithecker. “The rising number in Germany — at least in the northern part of Germany — is created mainly by the double number of tested people. This means the ratio of positively tested people is the same like before. So we will find more people by the situation, the general situation is not going worse in the northern part. We have more tested because the German government is fearing, at the moment, all the people coming back from their holidays in the south, especially, in the south of Europe. That’s the main reason at the moment that we are following so close all the figures every day.”

The nature of the limited guest list means that social distancing will be significantly easier for attendees to practice than they have been in past years, when members of the press have been elbowing small children out of the way in order to get a good show of the latest ASUS gaming laptop. Of course, simply having more space doesn’t necessarily mean that guests will keep to the mask and social distance requirements (1.5 meters) that IFA posts.

“We have so many additional people watching out for our attendees, that they will wear masks, that they will keep the distances,” Heithecker explains. He adds that attendees will be removed from the premises for refusing to adhere to such social safety rules, but that such a move, understandably, is a last resort.

The organization notably pulled the plug on the Global Markets portion of the show, citing “persistent travel restrictions prevent Asian companies from joining the live event.” The event, launched in 2016 for OEMs/ODMs, retailers and distributors, drew a significant portion of exhibitions and attendees from Asian countries. In late June, Samsung announced that it would be pulling out of the show, opting instead for its own Unpacked event just ahead of IFA.

Heithecker believes that Samsung’s decision was based on word from the hardware giant’s U.K. offices. “Two months, three months ago, they couldn’t imagine that any journalist would attend IFA,” he tells TechCrunch. “And even if you told them, ‘Hey, we have all the registrations already, they will come,’ they didn’t believe.”

He adds that he thinks the company is essentially riding the show’s presence to add views, but that Samsung will ultimately regret not directly taking part in the show. “Samsung is doing the press conference in front of this year’s IFA, using the attention we create for the industry, for new products, using the power, the activity of IFA as well, even if they’re not inside our show,” Heithecker says. “We create this and we will bring the proof that whoever is attending or using our new platform, even for online presentations, will see a bigger impact and much more viewers and much more investment than if you do it on your own.”

Samsung will reportedly test remote work program as South Korea copes with new COVID-19 cases

Samsung Electronics will reportedly begin trialing a work-from-home program for some employees next month as South Korea as the country deals with its largest increase in COVID-19 cases since March. According to Reuters, a company official said the pilot program will be open to some employees at Samsung’s mobile phone and consumer electronics divisions, and may be implemented more broadly after an assessment.

After stabilizing in April, confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Korea have begun climbing again over the past few weeks. According to data from John Hopkins University of Medicine, as of August 27, there had been 4,503 cases new cases and 13 deaths recorded over the past month, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 18,706 and deaths to 313.

The country had previously been able to mostly contain the spread of the disease through widespread testing, contact tracing, and movement restriction orders.

But the recent outbreak, which South Korean president Moon Jae-in described as “the biggest crisis since coronavirus came into our country,” means the country will reinstate its emergency-response system for COVID-19, which may mean stricter social-distancing orders that limit all gatherings to 10 people.

In June, one of Samsung Electronics South Korean research centers was closed and 1,200 employees were ordered to work from home after an employee’s child tested positive for COVID-19. In April, the company said it had established regional response teams for its workforce around the world and “strongly advised employees to work from home where possible.”

TechCrunch has contacted Samsung Electronics for comment.